What is a “thick description”?

A “thick description” is used in the prownian analysis as a way to gather information from your primary source- your object. You must document your object in as objective language as possible, paying close attention to every detail no matter how small. The key to writing a ‘thick description’ is to avoid conclusions- try to focus on the details. This will not only lengthen your description but it will create more objective writing.


For this example, I was given 5 minutes to write a practice thick description of the following picture:

“Look at The ‘Rate Schedule’ Sign, Last Line,” by Tom Driggers


There is a woman on the left side of the frame. Her eyebrows are raised, her eyes are open, and she is focused on something right of the viewer. She wears a dark T-shirt and her hair is in a bun. Her hair is blond with dark brown roots. She is standing near a metal shelf that supports ten differently designed coffee mugs and a sort of jar with a wide mouth and a large cork to fit the mouth. There are stickers on the rim of the shelf that advertise payment options like “visa.” Below the right corner of the shelf is a small sign hanging from a single nail that reads “good coffee” to the right of a 2D depiction of a steaming cup of coffee….”


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An AIDS Panel for a Mother

Analysis of thick description


Prownian Analysis

What does the Prownian Analysis do?

The Prownian Analysis allows us to recognize and interpret the historical significance of the objects we encounter.

What does it mean for an object to “embody” culture?

Every object represents an aspect of the culture that created it. For example, a pencil “embodies” our culture’s value of writing- of self-expression. This need to put to paper what we think or see or believe is what lead to the creation of the pencil.

What do you think it means for an object to be “expressive” or “culturally potent?”

Some objects are more explicit with their cultural significance. For example, a fire hydrant may be seen to represent the culture’s concern with safety or maybe their fear of death and destruction. However, what is the cultural aspect does a cork board embody? There is a universe of answers, they just are not as obvious as with the fire hydrant.

According to Haltman/ Prown, what is most important when composing a description of an object of study?

The most important part of the description is to avoid conclusions. Describe the container of clear liquid rather than just concluding that it is a water bottle. These conclusions not only shorten your description but they limit your interpretation.

What are the steps of a Prownian Analysis?

  1. Description
  2. Deduction
  3. Speculation
  4. Research
  5. Interpretive Analysis

How does the use of “signify” in this text conflict with Berthoff’s theory of language?

Haltman claims that objects signify their culture and we must work with words to interpret them, however, Berthoff claims that our words signify our own perception, which was built by our experiences and environment (the objects that surround us).


Also see:

Analysis of “Essays in Material Culture”

What is a “thick description”?


Analysis of “Essays in Material Culture”

Haltman Analysis

Audience: scholars and students

Prownian Analysis (by Jules Prown)

*This process is used for the study of history to help students become aware of the historical evidence in their environment. It allows for articulation of historical significance and its “production” (1). Ask: who made this? Why? How is it used? How was it used? What does it say about its culture?

*”All objects signify”, so we must ask “what does the object signify?,” “How expressively does the object signify?,” and ” what polarities does this object deal with?” What they say is just as important as how they say it (2). We must analyze the materials used to represent or enforce historical beliefs or practices. This allows us to develop “fruitful” questions and teaches us how to ask them. 

The Process

  1. Description—document details but remember to keep an eye on the big picture (ask: what do these details do for the big pictures?). It is best to write with “the flow of narrative” (3). A good description is rich with “nuanced vocabulary” written with an active voice (4). Ask: What is the object’s visual and physical effect in words?
  2. Deduction—Evaluate your emotional response in a similar fashion. Describe the reason you picked this piece and how its details make you feel. Ask: what about the object evokes these feelings? The point is to recognize the ways in which the object create its effect.
  3. Speculation— Entertain hypotheses about what your object signifies. Ask: what does it accomplish? What polarities does it represent and why?
  4. Research— Start asking questions and answer them using secondary research (primary would be your object). Document your journey and be creative with your research. Create an annotated bibliography.
  5. Interpretive Analysis
  • The process is subjective; No two individuals will interpret a given object in the same way. The point is to create an original interpretation- No one else should have been able to write this paper.
  • Do not forget to keep returning to the object.

“While only some of culture takes material form, the part that does records the shape and imprint of otherwise more abstract, conceptual, or even metaphysical aspects of that culture that they quite literally embody” (1)

Paraphrase: Objects are a physical analysis or representation of abstract or conceptual aspects of a culture, like a corset representing the importance of women having a thin waist at the time. Beauty over comfort.

“Select the object on which they wish to work, the thought being that some sort of significant sympathetic vibration may occur signaling the potential for that particular individual to uncover some significant meaning in that particular object” (2)

Paraphrase: The motivation the historian has to pick the object they pick in itself is a bias/analysis of the objects significant meaning and unique perception

“Material culture begins with a world of objects but takes place in a world of words” and “The medium in which we work as a cultural historian is language” (4)

Paraphrase: The only way we can describe an object is through words. The way we use words to describe the object invites bias and perception and our analysis relies on this unique perception.

-This language “effectively determines the bounds of possible interpretation.”  The language limits and explores interpretation, making the choice of words extremely important (4).




Prown, Jules David, and Kenneth Haltman. American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000


Also see:

Prownian Analysis

What is a “thick description”?